Speech Technology Magazine

 

Dialing for Dollars

MasterCard uses speech recognition to help customers find a million ATMs worldwide.
By Lauren Shopp - Posted Jan 25, 2008
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Traveling in a foreign country for a business trip, a busy executive fills her day with meetings and presentations. In addition, she has to keep track of her passport, luggage, and documents. Adding to her stress, she also has to communicate with locals who don’t share her native language.

Her fast-paced, tight schedule means limited time for simple, daily activities, such as withdrawing money from an ATM, whch she completes with ease in her home country. Pressed for time, she calls 1-877-FINDATM, answers several synthesized voice prompts, and finds the MasterCard ATM closest to her.

This convenience did not always exist. Prior to 2001, MasterCard users dialed into a call center, where agents helped customers find their nearest ATMs. In 2004, the company rolled out a toll-free number that replaced agents with an automated teller, and in 2005, added short message service (SMS) capabilities, which sent an ATM location to the end user’s mobile phone inbox. But in early 2006, the company called on Convergys to help it further improve its customer call-in services.

Though the company began its ATM locator services via the Web in 1997, limited Internet use at that time pushed customers to phone services instead.

"We were always a bit avant-garde with trying to leverage technology," says Jonathan Cetnarski, senior vice president and global practices leader at MasterCard Advisors. "We began to look at the phone-based ATM locator in 2003. We wanted to have the ability to have an SMS application because the regular system we were using at the time was showing that a lot of our callers were using cell phones. We wanted to make sure that whatever we went to had the ability to work in the mobile space."

The company opted for Convergys services, Cetnarski says, because the relationship management outsourcing company already provided services for MasterCard’s business call center, and added heightened information security. Of course, Convergys’ competitive price point also played a crucial role in the decision, he adds.

MasterCard’s new mobile, location-based search and directory service debuted in October 2006, housing a database of the company’s million-plus ATM locations for its more than 2 million cardholders. The service, which works with all major mobile carriers in the United States, is free to use, though carrier text-messaging rates may apply.

"We used to have something like 300,000-plus ATMs as part of the MasterCard, Maestro, and Cirrus networks, primarily in the U.S.," Cetnarski states. "The business outgrew the functionality. We now have more than 1 million ATM locations and a global scope and scale, so we started re-engineering."

The entire process took four months. Convergys worked in concert with its speech science team; middleware group Expressware managed the effort. Convergys’ SpeechPort platform hosts the application. The addition of SMS capabilities rolled out in tandem and is provided by Mobile 365, an international mobile messaging service with connections to more than 250 worldwide mobile operators. MasterCard chose SMS capabilities when it examined the behavioral patterns of end users who needed a permanent record of ATM locations for future reference.

"A lot of callers were asking for the service to repeat the address," Cetnarski claims. "When they called it indicated they were writing down something, asking the operator to repeat the information again."

The SMS option also aided business travelers, who more often need a hands-free way to access ATM locations while performing other activities, such as driving.

Providing the service on a worldwide scale meant a great deal to MasterCard; international travelers account for about 70 percent of the toll-free service’s telephone inquiries.

Because Convergys had to find a quick, efficient way for customers to access ATM locations from such a massive store of data, the company had to tweak the application to accommodate, says speech technology consultant Tom Kumpf. To do so, Convergys managed the vast quantities of locations by developing smaller grammars.

"We group the grammars by location," he says. "The call starts with a user either confirming or changing her state and city location. We’re not going to load a grammar that has 1 million ATMs in it."

When a caller dials in, she begins by providing the first six digits of her account number. Assuming she wants to find an ATM in close proximity to her present position, the system asks, Would you like to find an ATM in Rome, Italy? She can either confirm or change the location. Next, the system asks for either a street address or intersection and then searches for the nearest available ATM. From this point, a caller can opt for the information to be sent to her phone as a text message.

To keep the system up to date, Cetnarski says MasterCard performs continuous usability tests and listens to customer feedback, with Convergys providing necessary system changes or improvements once a year or as needed. These tests, for example, once provided MasterCard with data supporting changes it made in the customer location listings.

"We had an end-user session, and many were searching for ATMs in the location they were calling from," Cetnarski states. "It wasn’t that they were preparing for a trip. It was that they were arriving at the moment—not calling from where they came from, but calling from where they are."

Of course, Cetnarski says MasterCard also keeps an eye on quality and accuracy. In addition to conducting further usability testing in this area, the company used Convergys’ technology, he says, to scrub its ATM repository data. By removing special characters and abbreviations, Cetnarski says "the odds of mispronunciation decrease exponentially."

Kumpf adds that the SpeechPort application experienced the most ambiguity when receiving street intersections, but the system has been fine-tuned since. Convergys includes frequent tune-ups with each application purchase.

Drawing on Experience
From the experience in implementing the Convergys application, Cetnarski says MasterCard drew several best practices. Among them is the idea of creating a solid business plan that includes "knowing exactly where you see yourself and what kind of value proposition you’d like to bring to the marketplace" before speaking with vendors. From there the end-user experience and customer needs must be checked not just after deployment, but during usability trials, he says.

"Through our process, we always ask, ‘If I was the one receiving the service, would I consider this valuable or not?’" he says.

Finally, establishing a close partnership with the vendor not only ensures a smoother deployment, but creates a sense of ownership and investment from both ends, he says.

Convergys also offers a detailed lifecycle of the project before deployment. From the moment the project migrates from the sales department, the company defines its requirements while a VUI designer consults with the customer. Application design and coding follow, and finally the project is handed over to configuration management. Three additional phases remain following deployment: support, maintenance, and tuning.

The final result, Cetnarski says, presents a collage of continuous development via usability testing and customer feedback, coupled with a constant pursuit and commitment in creating an international presence. "We believe that we have the best application in the space and provide the biggest value back to our customers," he says. ˝

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